The Southbury Child - a rare and disappointing misfire at Chichester Festival Theatre

The Southbury Child, Chichester Festival Theatre, June 13-25

Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child - Photo Manuel Harlan
Alex Jennings in The Southbury Child - Photo Manuel Harlan

Alex Jennings gives an impressive, skilful performance as the chaotic, provocative and deeply flawed vicar David Highland in Stephen Beresford’s new play.

But not even he can save this disappointing and ultimately rather dislikeable drama from being a rare misfire at the CFT.

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When the conclusion depends on the appearance of a child’s coffin to persuade us that this is gritty and hard-hitting stuff amid the laughs, you know it’s a play which has pretty much sunk already.

The real problem is that so little about it persuades – fatally and above all the initial premise at the heart of it all, the completely manufactured conflict which is supposed to steer it through.

Highland is a boozer and an adulterer; as one character says, hardly the “poster boy” for moral certainties. And yet we are supposed to believe when the mother of a young girl wants Disney balloons at her funeral, he digs his heels in with an absolute refusal, knowing full well that his no will bring his whole way of life into question.

We spend the first half hoping that in the second half we will find out the real reason for his opposition, something which goes beyond his talk of the “integrity” of the church – an integrity he’s incapable of maintaining for himself.

But that reason never comes. Increasingly the drama goes nowhere – aside from a shocking moment of cruelty three quarters of the way through. And then when seemingly nothing else can save it, we get the coffin.

Does it persuade us that this is a tough piece of drama dealing with the grittiest and biggest of issues? No, it simply leaves an unpleasant taste. As a piece of drama it is disastrously misjudged.

Of course, theatre doesn’t have to be frivolous all the time; of course, there is a huge place for theatre which challenges us and breaks our hearts. But life is essentially about choosing which battles to fight; and nothing could possibly persuade that a basically decent vicar, no matter how damaged he is in his personal life, would fight such a pointless, heartless battle.

A better drama would have given a much greater place to the little girl’s mother; it would have found a way to say something meaningful about grief and place the vicar’s intransigence alongside it. Perhaps some kind of genuine conflict might have sparked. Instead, the mother is barely in it.

Instead, we get a cast of fairly secondary characters who do little to shift things along and are actually just a little irritating – the policewoman, the wife and the doctor’s wife. None of them strike us as particularly real. So little of the night seems to relate to a recognisable world – which is of course the danger when a play’s central battle is so completely forced and incomprehensible.

Oddly, it feels as if The Southbury Child might just have fared a little better in the Minerva, a more intimate space which might even have drawn us a little closer to the characters.

But on the main-house stage for sure, it seems distant, implausible, thin and… well, frankly unlikeable. The piece overlooks the fact that in the best plays we root for someone. With this, it’s difficult to feel terribly bothered by anyone. The sadness for the actors will be that largely it’s no fault of their own.